How Can Book Clubs Help Women in Management Roles?
As feminism has evolved from a large-scale fight for societal changes in the 1960s and 70s to encompassing more individual approaches in the 2000s, the movement’s transformation is evident in the literature that surrounds it. Recent writing offers fresh perspectives on organisational matters for women in business and leadership, so Dr Nina Seppala, deputy director of academic affairs and a teaching fellow for the UCL School of Management, gathered alumni and students to form the Women in Management Book Club.
“There’s been a generational shift, as what is feminism now is very different from what it was in the ’70s,” Seppala said. “It was good timing to come together within the School of Management to discuss these issues, especially with our alumni but also with our MBA students who are in full-time employment.”
The club meets every other month to discuss a publication and provides a model that other women in business and leadership can follow to form their own clubs.
Why are book clubs important for female business leaders?
Book clubs can help business people become better communicators, commit to reading as a habit, understand diverse perspectives and build relationships. UCL’s club provides a safe space for its members to discuss issues they encounter at work and how they can take action to change them.
“There’s almost a generational shift in how women perceive who they are, what they do in society, how they relate to other women and any people, and I think it’s been very interesting to see how increasingly our students, as well as alumni, have started to talk about how they relate to feminism,” Seppala said.
Seppala’s club began in person when it launched in December 2019 but switched to online when the coronavirus pandemic forced a shutdown. She expects meetings to continue online until at least next summer.
Each meeting typically starts with a review of book club questions (see below for examples) and ends by discussing key takeaways for each member and how it applies to their work life.
“I have a certain list of questions that I ask, but I try not to direct the book club too much and just allow people to speak,” Seppala said.
How can women in management launch a book club?
Based on her experience overseeing the UCL book club, Seppala offered general advice for women looking to start similar groups.
ALLOW BOOK CLUB MEMBERS TO CHOOSE READING SELECTIONS.
Reading material should not be dominated by one person’s interests. In Seppala’s club, members suggest titles and the group votes on the books it will read for the entire year.
“What is exciting about the book club is that people come with their own suggestions about which book to read, and that is the beauty of the book club: You will read text that you would not normally read,” Seppala said.
CONSIDER BOOKS THAT MAY NOT FIT THE ORIGINAL MOULD.
For example, the UCL club originally started with readings that were very focused on women in management, but some members also wanted to read more classical feminist titles, such as Simone de Beavoir’s The Second Sex.
“We had very good discussions about women in management even though the book did not relate directly to women in management,” Seppala said. “Sometimes books that do not seem directly relevant actually are.”
CREATE A SAFE SPACE TO SHARE EXPERIENCES IN MEETINGS.
In Seppala’s club, conversations often include personal experiences of members.
“The atmosphere has to be such that people feel comfortable talking about their work without people talking about their experiences beyond the book club,” Seppala said.
ADD RICHNESS TO MEETINGS BY INCLUDING MEMBERS OR GUESTS OF DIVERSE RACES, GENDERS, AGES AND EXPERIENCES.
Inviting members with varying identities can add novel perspectives to a book club< group. Seppala said hearing viewpoints from people who were Black or North American could have better informed her group’s discussion of Michelle Obama’s Becoming, for example
“We’ve all been to the same university, people are doing similar careers, they have similar interests, so it’s a little bit of a like-minded community,” she said. “Maybe we should think about sometimes inviting guest members, maybe from a more diverse intersectional experience.”
Entrepreneur and Bustle also offer additional tips for launching a business book club and running a feminist book club:
- Define the club’s goals.
- Select topics on which to concentrate.
- Set ground rules.
- Start a “to be read” list.
- Invite the right mix of people.
- Get intersectional.
- Connect reading to current events.
- Stay on topic.
- Make meetings enticing.
- Cultivate trust.
- Keep the discussion going beyond meetings.
Sample book club discussion questions for women’s book clubs
Seppala typically includes these questions in each meeting to help guide the discussion.
- What are your main impressions of the book?
- What parts of the book stood out to you?
- Did you learn anything new?
- Is there a specific topic or argument you found interesting?
- Can you point to specific passages that struck you personally?
- What did you like best?
- What did you like least?
Those generic prompts are followed by questions specific to each book.
Example: Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men
Reading Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women in early 2020 generated plenty of interest and deep conversation within the UCL book club.
“Invisible Women, for us, was really about understanding the importance of having the information about what’s actually taking place,” Seppala said.
According to Seppala, every argument in the book was backed by strong empirical and research data, and it got the members talking about how important it was to have data that fully reflects truths in the workplace and in society at-large. In terms of gender gaps in leadership positions, for example, organisations need to understand where women get stuck and why. Data is necessary to understand the problem before taking action, Seppala said.
“Sometimes the data is actually quite surprising about what is taking place, and especially when we talk about something like the gender pay gap or women arguing for salary increases. It is very difficult to do that unless you have the data about what the position is, and the same applies to many situations in organisations,” Seppala said.
“We have these assumptions about what’s happening, but we do not always have data, and the data is really important for being able to make strong arguments and also to affect change and to create accountability.
Q&A with Dr. Seppala on Invisible Women
Q: WHY WAS THIS BOOK CHOSEN FOR THE GROUP?
A: Books are chosen on the basis of suggestions and votes from book club members. Many of the members are interested in data and technology, the focus of the book.
Q: WHAT WERE THE KEY TAKEAWAYS FROM THIS BOOK THAT RESONATED WITH THE CLUB?
A: Invisible Women covers many practical stories about how products, cities and organisations are designed based on a male standard.
For example, it explains why cars are less safe for women than men because they are designed for a male of average height and weight, and this is why women have more serious injuries from car accidents. It also explains how speech recognition systems are trained on male voices, and this is why they are less accurate at recognising female voices.
The overwhelming takeaway from the book is that women need to be included in the design of products and processes in order to ensure inclusivity. The book also demonstrates the importance of collecting data to show how women are disadvantaged in society and to make better decisions.
Q: BASED ON LESSONS FROM THE BOOK, WHAT ACTIONABLE STEPS WILL BOOK CLUB MEMBERS TRY TO TAKE TO INTEGRATE THESE LEARNINGS IN THEIR WORK LIVES?
A: It is important to search for and use data that exists about gender differences. Where data does not exist, it needs to be collected. What gets measured, gets managed.
Q: WHO SHOULD READ THIS BOOK?
A: Anyone who is interested in product design and policy decisions that may have differential effects on men and women.
Book suggestions for women in leadership and business
In addition to Invisible Women, the UCL book club also read the following titles in 2020:
Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder by Arianna Huffington
LoveReading synopsis of Thrive: “In this deeply personal book, Arianna talks candidly about her own challenges with managing time and prioritising the demands of a career and two daughters. Drawing on the latest groundbreaking research and scientific findings in the fields of psychology, sports, sleep and physiology that show the profound and transformative effects of meditation, mindfulness, unplugging and giving, Arianna shows us the way to a revolution in our culture, our thinking, our workplaces and our lives.”
Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (And Other Lies) by Scarlett Curtis
LoveReading synopsis of Feminists Don’t Wear Pink: “With a range of contributors from Hollywood actresses to teen activists writing about their personal experiences as women, Feminists Don’t Wear Pink is Rebel Girls for a teen audience.
“You need this book. Funny, powerful and personal writing by women, for women, about what the F word means to them. Every woman has a different story to tell. Reading them all in one book might just change your life.”
Becoming by Michelle Obama
LoveReading synopsis of Becoming: “In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerising storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her – from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it – in her own words and on her own terms.”
The Second Sex by Simone de Beavoir
LoveReading synopsis of The Second Sex: “‘One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.’ First published in Paris in 1949, The Second Sex by Simone de Beavoir was a groundbreaking, risque book that became a runaway success. … Required reading for anyone who believes in the equality of the sexes, the central messages of The Second Sex are as important today as they were for the housewives of the forties.”
The Gendered Brain by Gina Rippon
LoveReading synopsis of The Gendered Brain: “Barbie or Lego? Reading maps or reading emotions? Do you have a female brain or a male brain? Or is that the wrong question? On a daily basis we face deeply ingrained beliefs that our sex determines our skills and preferences, from toys and colours to career choice and salaries. But what does this mean for our thoughts, decisions and behaviour? Using the latest cutting-edge neuroscience, Gina Rippon unpacks the stereotypes that bombard us from our earliest moments and shows how these messages mould our ideas of ourselves and even shape our brains.”
Seppala also recommends these books:
Citation for this content: The UCL Online MBA.